Checking out a used boat? Look for signs of overall maintenance. Even lifejackets, lines, and fenders can be clues to how much love a boat has had. Here’s a list of other things to watch for. When in doubt, call in a pro.

1. Look for cracks in the fibreglass above and below the waterline

Small cracks, such as spiderwebs in localized areas, are mostly cosmetic. They tend to appear near screws that haven’t been countersunk properly around handles, gunwales, and wind-shields. No biggie—but they may get worse if not fixed.

Cracks greater than 2″ long suggest larger problems underneath. Ask whether the boat’s been in a collision and look for signs, such as gelcoat patches, that indicate extensive repairs. Get an expert to inspect.

2. Inspect for signs of damage

Flexing, cracking, mould, and moisture in fibreglass and wooden areas, such as the hull, transom, and floor? These can indicate rot, the break-down of fibreglass, delamination of plywood, or even rot in the stringers. You’ll likely want to walk.

3. Check for loose seats

The floor may be rotten (not good), or it could simply be that the bolts are stripped. (Sitting on the seat back as you drive strains the bolts.) Your marina can easily fix the latter.

4. Look for mildew

Do the seats, boat top, or carpet have mildew and other damage (check the storage lockers too)? Upholstery and covers can be cleaned or replaced, but extensive mould inside the seats is a bad sign. Also, mould spreads easily, so spores on these surfaces may be in the wooden parts as well; a mouldy carpet or ski locker can mean problems underneath.

5. Make sure the electronics work

Burned-out bulbs and seized bilge pumps have cheap solutions.

Multiple devices on the fritz could mean faulty wiring or a faulty battery—again, not a big deal. But check to see if labels on the engine have peeled up or if insulation on the wires has melted, signs of engine overheating—and trouble.

6. Check the belts

Are the alternator or power-steering belts are thin, worn, or cracked? Belts should be changed every 100 hours. Your first service can cover it, but damaged belts hint at lax care.

7. Start the engine

Does the engine start rough or slip, make excessive noise, vibrate, or smoke? Old gas or too much oil are easily fixed during your first tune-up. However, these symptoms can indicate a bigger problem, such as low compression in the cylinders, requiring a costly engine overhaul.

8. Test the oil

Does the engine oil feel gritty between [your fingers]? The grit is metal filings, which could indicate serious engine wear. If a mechanic confirms, abandon ship.

If there’s milky oil in the engine or lower unit, this means water is getting in. A bent prop shaft can be straightened and a blown or worn seal replaced. But an impact causing this kind of damage may have stressed the gears or, if water got inside, the gears may be corroded—bad news. If water is coming through a cracked engine block, steer clear.

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